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Soviet Union Internal Security

IN THE LATE 1980s, the Soviet Union continued to place great emphasis on ensuring security and internal order. Because it was governed by a monopolistic party, whose leaders were not democratically elected, the Soviet system had no legitimacy based on popular support and therefore protected itself from internal and external threats by means of a strong security system. The system included the regular police, judicial bodies, prosecuting organs, and the security police, as well as an external security and foreign intelligence apparatus. Even in the era of perestroika (see Glossary) and glasnost' (see Glossary) ushered in by General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the organs of internal security still had a key role to play, despite the party leadership's apparent tolerance of criticism of the political system.

The Soviet security, or political, police had a long history, dating back to the prerevolutionary, tsarist period. Although the tsarist political police was ruthless and unscrupulous, the police organs established by Vladimir I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks (see Glossary) in 1917, known as the Vecheka (see Glossary), far surpassed their predecessors in terms of terror and violence. The Bolsheviks allowed the Vecheka almost unrestricted powers to persecute those who were perceived as "class enemies." This set the stage for the development of the brutal Stalinist police state, in which millions of innocent victims perished at the hands of the political police, controlled by Joseph V. Stalin.

After Stalin died, Nikita S. Khrushchev initiated legal reforms and reorganized the police apparatus. The terror ended abruptly, and the political police were brought under the control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti--KGB), established in March 1954, was tasked with security functions, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerstvo vnutrennykh del--MVD) was charged with combating ordinary crime and maintaining the extensive network of labor camps. A new legal code was established to replace the Stalinist laws, and both the security police and the regular police were subjected to procedural norms and regulations in carrying out their functions. Nevertheless, the party leadership did not eliminate all the legal loopholes and allowed the KGB to circumvent the law when combating political dissent. The KGB also played an important role in implementing the anticorruption campaign, which resulted in the ouster of many state and party officials after General Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev died. Among its other tasks were guarding the leadership and important government buildings; protecting Soviet state borders; and carrying out intelligence, counterintelligence, and active measures (see Glossary) abroad.

The MVD was restricted to combating ordinary crime and, unlike the KGB, was subjected to constant criticism in the Soviet press, which attacked its inefficiency and corruption. In addition to the MVD, the Procuracy (Prokuratura) and the Ministry of Justice played important roles in implementing the laws and administering justice. The Ministry of Defense's Main Military Procuracy, along with the system of military tribunals, handled crimes within the armed forces.

Both the KGB and the MVD played important roles in the succession crises that followed Brezhnev's death. The KGB, however, was more politically significant than the MVD and, after the early 1970s, had an increasing impact on Soviet domestic and foreign policy making. To reinforce their coercive role, the KGB and the MVD had special troops at their disposal, including the Border Troops, the Security Troops, and the Internal Troops.

Internal security in the Soviet Union involved numerous organizations and was guided by the party leadership. It had always served more than ordinary police functions and had covered such areas as intelligence gathering and suppression of dissent. The party and the regime as a whole depended on the internal security apparatus to ensure their own survival.

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Among the sources in English on the history of Soviet internal security are Ronald Hingley's The Russian Police; George Leggett's The Cheka; Simon Wolin and Robert Slusser's The Soviet Secret Police; and Boris Levytsky's The Uses of Terror. Amy W. Knight's The KGB provides a treatment of the current security police. H.J. Berman and J.W. Spindler's Soviet Criminal Law and Procedure provides a useful background for understanding Soviet law and legality. Also see William Fuller's "The Internal Troops of the MVD SSSR" discusses the security forces.

Data as of May 1989

Sources and Methods

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Updated Wednesday, November 26, 1997 5:56:23 PM